Interviewed by Lars Ulrich
Published in Kerrang! September 1996
Source: The Iron Maiden Commentary
August, 1981. Copenhagen, Denmark. A 17-year-old kid stands gawping in awe at the British rock band who're tearing up the stage of his local venue. He's already seen some of the 'greats' – Deep Purple, Thin Lizzy, Motörhead – but this is different. This band are hungrier, rawer, with an almost punk-like intensity welded onto sophisticated dynamic musicianship. The kid has recently started playing drums himself, and this is the sort of band he'd like to be a part of. If only...
Fast forward 15 years. The 17-year-old kid is now the powerhouse drummer behind the world's most popular metal band: Metallica. The British band he saw that night are 20 years into a glittering career during which they've released some of the genre's classic albums, planted ice-white trainers upon edge monitors across the globe countless times, and had untold influence upon two generations of musicians from Ash's Tim Wheeler to Slayer's Kerry King, Machine Head's Robb Flynn to Therapy?'s Michael McKeegan. That'll be Iron Maiden, then. September will see the release of a career-spanning compilation of Maiden's seminal work cunningly titled The Best of the Beast. To mark the event, we though this would be the perfect opportunity to bring together the two men who are more responsible than most for shaping the face of hard rock music – Maiden guv'nor Steve Harris and his celebrity super-fan, Lars Ulrich.
The last time Steve and Lars met was in 1988. Back when Maiden were drawing a record crowd of 97,000 to Donington, and Metallica had still to release ...And Justice For All, the album which would transform them from cult heroes into international superstars.
In popular opinion, the intervening years have seen the unofficial 'Greatest Metal Band in the World' accolade pass from Harris' crew to Ulrich's stadium-straddling quartet. So with shared history, mutual respect, egos and professional pride all part of the equation, it'll be interesting to see how the two men relate now. That's the theory, anyway...
Steve Harris is first to greet us in the bar of Manhattan's swanky Parker Meridian Hotel. He's flown in on Concorde specially for this interview, prior to meeting up with his bandmates in South America for another energy-sapping headlining tour. Immediately, you're struck by his near-legendary friendliness and down-to-earth nature. He confesses to being curious as to how this afternoon will unfold. The words 'diamond' and 'geezer' have never been so apt.
Lars bounces in a couple of minutes later, all smiles and handshakes. Having just completed Metallica's Lollapalooza tour in the US, the wiry sticksman, is supposed to be on a well-deserved break with his medical student girlfriend. It's a measure of the man's respect for Steve Harris that he's here at all today. Lars has endured a lot of good-natured jibes over the years, but you simply can't fault his enthusiasm and tireless energy.
Initial small-talk over, we retire to Steve's chamber and order Evian and Heineken on room service. Lars and Steve plonk themselves down side by side on the couch. I click on my tape recorder.
We're ready to rock...
...There are a few moments of silence.
"Okay," Lars laughs, "you're the interviewer, I'm the subject. Go ahead..."
Steve looks confused.
"I thought you were interviewing me" he frowns.
Not an auspicious start...
We explain that, yes, basically Lars is interviewing Steve. But we want both of them to compare and contrast their experiences in the swirling maelstrom that is the life of a hugely successful rock star. Or something...
Our diminutive Danish chum nods and throws himself into the task with gust.
It must be really interesting to look back over the years.
Steve Harris: I don't really think about the past much but, yeah, it's a long history.
Steve has a laugh about the band's early days of mischief with original vocalist, Paul Di'Anno. He recalls recording Maiden's legendary Soundhouse Tapes demo on New Year's Eve, because that was the only time the East End quintet could afford the studio fees. He talks about the days of getting chased out of pubs returning home to find strange people in your bed, and attempting to lure strangers back to bed. General young guns going for it.
Any regrets from that period?
Steve Harris: Any decisions you make at the time are valid no matter what their outcome. You learn by your mistakes. You should never look over your shoulder...
...As David Lee Roth once said, 'The only reason you look in the rearview mirror is to see how cool you look going forward.' I'll never sit and slag off decisions we made in the past. Whatever I think of ...And Justice For All in 1996, in 1988 my hard-on was there.
We'll leave your hard-on out of this, Mr Ulrich, if you please. Why don't you get all misty-eyed about Maiden's illustrious past?
For me, Iron Maiden were the best rock band in the world for at least seven years. But it wasn't just the music. You put 10 minutes more music on albums than any other rock band, you had the best packaging, the coolest t-shirts, everything. There was a depth to your whole organisation that was great for fans like me, and it was a big inspiration for us in Metallica. I wanted to give the same quality to kids who were into our band.
Steve Harris: I'll not be able to get my head out the door if you keep this up.
Don't worry, I'm not going to bend you over.
Steve Harris: Too bloody right you ain't pal!
We move on to a marginally safer topic: Bruce Dickinson's departure from Maiden. Steve has been unusually reticent on the subject in the past, but faced with Lars' insistent probing he opens up a bit.
Steve Harris: In retrospect, it must've started around the time of the No Prayer for the Dying album when Bruce did his first solo album and tour. I went to see him a couple of times and he was so into it. But when we did our own tour he seemed to be rather going through the motions. With Fear of the Dark, though, he initially seemed to be interested again. But then he told us he wanted to leave. People are there as long as the passion and pride to be in the band is there, and if they don't want to be there...
...There's the fucking door.
The two then discuss inter-band trust, inter-band 'bulls and cows' (rows – thank you, Lord Cockney), the dubious subject of solo albums, and the gang mentality inherent in all successful bands. It's all getting a trifle cosy, so your ever-shit-stirring Kerrang! decides to stick its oar in.
Bruce Dickinson told me that he left because he felt Maiden were in a rut.
Steve Harris: Obviously, I'm not going to agree with that. We've always been very stubborn and not worried about anyone outside us. There's five guys in the band now who all love what we're doing, and there's no point in being different for difference's sake. Bruce never said any of this stuff at the time, though, so what can I say?
[to Lars] I know you were a fan in the early days, but sometimes when you're a fan of the band for a long time you can lose interest a bit. What do you think about the recent years?
Lars, who these days is more likely to listen to Oasis than Iron Maiden, cleverly juggles honesty, tact and diplomacy.
In the late '80s, our horizons really started expanding, so a lot of the harder rock stuff I was listening to got pushed to the side. I've changed a lot over the years. But I remember in '86 having an advance tape of Maiden's Somewhere in Time album and playing it over and over again. I really, really liked it, even though Kerrang! weren't so keen on it.
Steve Harris: It depends on who you talk to and when they first got into the band. I meet kids of 14 or 15 now who say that No Prayer For the Dying or Fear of the Dark is their favourite Maiden album. If someone believes I'm not doing this as well as I was 10 years ago that's up to them. But I can't and don't worry about stuff like that.
This uncompromising attitude is another characteristic Lars and Steve share. They've both singlemindedly led their bands from snotty outsider status to the peak of the music business. And while some noses have been put out of joint en route, neither of them has deviated from their childhood aim to be in the biggest band in the world. Bassists and drummers aren't traditionally band leaders, but Steve and Lars recognise their shared mentality.
You have to put the blinkers on and let no fucker get in your way.
Both men have also been the butt of 'control freaks' jibes.
True democracy doesn't work in a band.
Steve Harris: Exactly. If you had a meeting about every bloody think you'd get nothing done. Someone has to take the bull by the horns. I've been called all sorts over the years, and the fact that we've had so many line-up changes might make it look like people can't get on with me. I'm not going to get a complex about it, though.
It's eight years since you last sat down for a good natter, so what do you make of one another after all this time?
Name one man in the heart of rock 'n' roll who hasn't changed one fucking iota and it's him. I mean that in a very positive way. He seems to be as happy and set in his ways as he was when I first met him.
Steve Harris: I haven't seen Lars for a few years and I was interested to see how he'd be now compared to then. He's had a lot of success since, and that can sometimes go to people's heads. After this meeting, I'd say he hasn't changed much at all. Apart form the haircut.
Yes, Lars has undergone a major image change. There's the hair, the white vests, the eyeliner. Mr Harris, I wonder, would you consider some kind of boat race/cosmetics interface?
Steve Harris: It's not the sort of thing I'd be into doing. In photo sessions people say to me, "Wear this or that to look younger and better", but I'd rather look 80-years-old than wear makeup.
The laughter and anecdotes continue. Lars tells Steve that for two years he didn't feel safe flying unless he'd listened to Maiden's '22 Acacia Avenue' before take-off. The pair chat about muso stuff – studios, producers, managers, etc. They talk loads. We stifle yawns.
Right, Steve is going to miss his flight to Rio at this rate. Let's move on to the future of the seemingly indestructible Maiden.
Have you got anything else you want to do in your career?
Steve Harris: Not really, no. I've got loads of other interest s outside of the band – football, tennis, photography – and I've got four kids which obviously takes up a lot of my time. But there's no great ambition to do any one big thing.
Time to put Lars on the spot now. Lars, you've helped out many of your musical heroes by giving them widespread exposure on Metallica tours. How about doing the same for Maiden?
Lars witters on about seeing bands that inspire him without actually saying yes or no. Steve?
Steve Harris: I don't think we'd support them anywhere other than in America, because we're obviously not as strong as we were here. We can still headline anywhere else in the world, so there'd be no point in us supporting anyone, not just Metallica.
Fair enough. But for how long can you keep steering the good ship Maiden?
Steve Harris: I really love doing Maiden and being on stage. When I stop, I suppose it'll be like being a footballer and then becoming a manager – it's always gonna be second best. If I went off and did production or managed a band I might enjoy it, but it's never, ever going to be the same. Obviously, I know it can't go on forever.
But what's your gut feeling?
Steve Harris: I was asked this 10 years ago, and I didn't think then that I was going to be doing this when I was 40. But now I am 40, I don't feel any different. I think I'll know the time, but no other bugger's going to tell me. And it ain't yet. I'm determined to grow old disgracefully.
The most driven men in rock shake hands, exchange phone numbers and make plans to meet up in London in a couple of weeks. There's been no egos, no squabbles, just a couple of old mates having a laugh and a chinwag.
We'll save the running for the hills to another day, then.